MOUNT KATAHDIN TOWNSHIP — Mount Katahdin is famous in Maine as that singularly grueling, even dangerous, climb straight up the state’s tallest peak. As the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, it’s the last challenge for AT thru-hikers, a fitting end to their 2,190-mile odyssey.

Soon it will become a kinder, gentler finale, as Baxter Park officials reroute several of the six trails that go up Mount Katahdin, softening trail grades, and adding switchbacks and stonework to prevent water runoff and erosion, and ensure hiker safety.

“When it’s raining, your knees are under water here,” said State Park Ranger Liz Thibault as she stood two miles up the Hunt Trail in mid-August. “Rerouting is a last resort. Usually it’s a reaction to something that happened – like a trail collapsing or presenting a big risk to hikers. Only if it’s beyond repair do we reroute.”

But on Mount Katahdin, she went on to say, the trails are deteriorating, in large part because of their layout, and “we’re trying to jump ahead of that.” Work on two trails is under way, and park officials are keeping a close eye on two others, she said.

The trails built on Mount Katahdin in the mid-1900s went straight up the mountain. Those trails remain in use today. But when the snow melts in the spring or torrential rains fall, they turn into open channels for water to rush down. Because of the runoff, the trails have eroded down to the bedrock in many places. And in a wet region like New England, spring runoff and heavy rain showers are a constant.

Add to these the issue of climate change. Baxter State Park Director Eben Sypitkowski said as hundred-year floods become more common, more storms will bring pounding rain.

“(It) will result in greater issues with erosion,” Sypitkowski said. “This is already proving to be true, and influences not only our trail planning, but also road stream crossings and other infrastructure.”

When trails are built in a more meandering fashion, traversing inclines with more gradual grades or relying on features like rock steps that slow water, then erosion is slowed and rock slides are less likely. In turn, hikers are safer, and trails endure for decades, if not the next 100 years, Thibault said.

WORK ORDER

 

Thibault feels soil in a “borrow pit” that trail crews use to help build the rerouted section of the Hunt Trail. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Thibault is working with a crew to reroute part of the 5.2-mile-long Hunt Trail onto a new .81-mile section. The rerouted section transforms what had been a straight path up into switchbacks with gentle curves. The crew is also adding stone steps and other stone features to direct water away from the trail.

Crews also are at work on Dudley, a reroute that began in 2016 in response to a rock slide. The reroute spans one mile, making it significantly longer than the original .29-mile section that was taken out by the slide, Thibault said.

Other projects that she has her eye on in the near term? Abol was reconstructed in 2015, two years after a rock slide. The new section of the trail opened in 2017 but already shows signs of severe erosion.

The section will have to be reconstructed again, Thibault said, or possibly rerouted. These also are likely in the works for part of the Saddle Trail, a section that is so damaged hikers must slide rather than walk down it. More Mount Katahdin trail projects may follow.

Just 36 miles of the 225 miles of trails in Baxter crisscross the towering, 5,267-foot mountain. Yet most of the park’s visitors concentrate there. The heavy use makes these trails especially vulnerable to damage. Last year, 35,000 of the 70,000 people who visited the park hiked the mountain.

“Katahdin is definitely the main attraction here,” Thibault said.

EXPENSIVE UNDERTAKING

Hikers climb Abol Trail in August. The trail was rerouted after a landslide in 2013. Re-routing is in the works for several other Katahdin trails, which were originally built to go straight up the mountain. 

When he gave the 200,000-acre wilderness park to the people of Maine, Gov. Percival Baxter intended it to be a rare place for Mainers to enjoy the beauty and peace in nature. Baxter mandated that the park be maintained in its “wild and natural state.” To conform to the mandate, the rocks and soil being used to build the new trails come off the mountain.

Thibault works with crews of trail builders from the Maine Conservation Corps. She estimates labor and material costs for the trail work at $400,000 a year. On Mount Katahdin alone, she said the park will spend about $158,000 for two crews this year, money that comes from Governor Baxter’s Boston Trust, recreational fees and donations. Park operations are not funded by taxpayer dollars.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

A century ago the tradition of using pack mules to carry loads led those who blazed trails out West to build switchbacks (or a zig-zagging path) up mountains. Even today, Western trails typically go up mountains gradually. But in the East, early mountaineers typically took the most direct route to summit a peak.

“The Northeast, in general, has a history of creating trails that follow the fall line, when you create a trail from A to B in the fastest time possible without considering the sustainability of the route,” Thibault said.

Lester Kenway, the president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and a ranger at Baxter State Park for 22 years, said the concept of sustainable trail building came slowly to New England, and in some areas here it still hasn’t arrived.

“I had hiked on better trails in Nepal in 1979,” Kenway said. “I’ve visited many places in the South and West where sustainable trail design had been going on for a very long time.”

Kenway spearheaded the reconstruction of the Hunt Trail in 1991 that led to the now-famous 450-step staircase up the Appalachian Trail; the stairs follow the original trail route. Kenway worked with crews every year until 1999 to build the intricate, primitive staircase. The final section was finished in 2015, after he retired. Kenway predicted the solidly built steps will last for generations. Still, he favors rerouting trails when needed as the simplest and least expensive way to reduce soil erosion.

THAT OTHER FAMOUS PARK

Trails in Acadia National Park were also cut a century ago, and some are also threatened by erosion, according to Acadia Trail Foreman Gary Stellpflug. To address the problem, park staff rerouted trails slightly and employed more modern trail building techniques. But Acadia got lucky. From the start, the region’s unique pink granite was used to enhance the aesthetic appearance of the trails, which had been designed to appeal to wealthy summer visitors. As it turned out, that rock did more than dress up the park.

“There is a lot of stonework. Some stone steps are viable 120 years later,” Stellpflug said. “Some of our trails follow the fall line but it’s a mix. Some of the trails are incredibly sustainable. But I don’t think sustainability was the top thing on their minds. They wanted to build good solid trails but they wanted to make a statement on the land.”

Rangers reroute trails in Acadia as a very last resort, Stellpflug said, because they are concerned with maintaining the “historic integrity of the trail.” That said, “we put in drainage every chance we get.”

REGENERATION

About two miles up the Hunt Trail, the footpath is worn down to bedrock, looking more like a rocky stream bed full of skipping stones than a trail. It’s easy to imagine that in a drenching rain, this section would be slippery and treacherous – even flooded.

To the left in the woods, a parallel trail is under construction. At one point it cuts across the original trail to the right. There, a new corridor has been cut and stone steps added in places to make steeper sections more gradual and secure.

A staircase which has been installed on a rerouted section of Hunt Trail which is not yet open to the public. Trail crews began the initial cut of the Hunt Trail, which is currently being rerouted. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We need Katahdin to last forever,” said Dean Samuelson, who is leading the Maine Conservation Corps team working on the new trail. “Overusing unsustainable trails is one of the greatest threats to that. This new trail is great for hikers. It uses enough switchbacks so that the trail will have a sustainable grade. It will stay drier than a fall line trail, and once we finish the stone structures, it’s also going to be a lot easier to climb. There will be less boulder scrambling, less rock jumping.”

Samuelson said his crew has made use of existing natural trail structures, incorporating ledge rock as tread surfaces and boulders to hold soil. The trail crew also integrated beautiful natural features, such as a 10-foot-high boulder that was left when ice sheets receded during the last Ice Age, and a view to 3,736-foot The Owl mountain.

When the new trail opens – likely next fall – the original section of the Hunt Trail will be closed, covered over with brush and branches to discourage hikers from traveling on it. It needs time to regenerate. Eroded trails that are retired take anywhere from 10 to 40 years to return to a wild state, Kenway said, and he thinks the deeply washed-out sections of the Hunt Trail will take a few decades to regenerate. As far back as the 1980s, Kenway said, it was clear Mount Katahdin’s trails needed to be saved: “This approach is long overdue.”

New approaches to trail restoration that put more emphasis on protecting the natural environment will transform Mount Katahdin’s trails, Thibault believes.

“As new information, education and practices in relation to trail construction continue to spread through the trail community,” she said, “Katahdin’s summit trails will continue to evolve – respectfully.”


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